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Section 9: Trip Two

The Sunlight Basin Beartooth Road from Cody to Montana

 

Open Google Map at GPS Coordinates:

 
Beginning: 44.535402, -109.062590
     Ending: 45.004621, -109.410832
 

This trip begins by turning off US-14 in Cody and going north on W-120. As you head out of town, the road crosses the Shoshone River and climbs to the top of a small bench. Here you can see Heart Mountain to the north, Pat O'Hara Mountain to the northwest, and Rattlesnake Mountain to the west. To the southwest a bit is Cedar Mountain; to the far southwest is Carter Mountain, and to the southeast are the McCullough Peaks.

At mile #104 you climb up a bit along Cottonwood Creek and at mile #108 the Rattlesnake Mountain Road (P-7UH) turns west to the national forest (12 miles). As you continue north on W-120, you pass by Heart Mountain and begin following Skull Creek to a junction at mile #117. Here W-120 continues north to Red Lodge, Montana.

Turn west on the Chief Joseph Highway (W-296) and cross O'Hara Creek. (In the old days of the "First Edition of Dirt", this use to be the Sunlight Basin Road, P-7RO, and the pavement ended as you entered the national forest a few miles down the road.) After climbing up a hill to the northwest and toward the Beartooth Mountains, the road turns southwest toward O'Hara Mountain and then swings west along Blaine Creek. You now begin climbing up a few switchbacks and enter the national forest at mile #38. The trees in this area are limber pine.

After entering the forest, the road continues climbing and you begin seeing spruce and fir trees. Five miles from the boundary, you reach the top of Dead Indian Hill at Vista Point at mile #33. Here you can see Heart Mountain to the southeast, Pat O'Hara Mountain to the south, and the Beartooth Mountains to the north. To the west is Sunlight Basin and the Absaroka Mountains.

As the road drops down the switchbacks (past fir and lodgepole pine), you have a great overlook of the Clarks Fork Canyon. (Note: If you adjust your descent speed to about three ear-pops per mile, you can avoid a crushed anvil and disarticulated stirrup in the inner ear.) Eight miles from the top is the Dead Indian Campground and a trailhead. The road then climbs up a bit and winds around to a junction on Sunlight Creek. Here you can turn west on P-7GQ and follow the creek into the basin.

Stay north across Sunlight Creek on W-296 (mile #23). The road climbs up a small bench and begins following above the Clarks Fork Canyon. At mile #19, you pass below Sugarloaf Mountain and seven miles further is the Reef Campground. You then travel past Cathedral Cliffs (above Crandel Creek) and go by the Crandel Ranger Station.

The road crosses the Clarks Fork River and travels below Hunter Peak to the Hunter Peak Campground and the Clarks Fork Trailhead (mile #5). As you continue northwest, you can see Pilot Peak and the Index to the northwest. To the west is Cache Mountain. You then pass the Lake Creek Campground to a junction with US-212.

OPTION: To Cooke City & Yellowstone.

Turn west toward Pilot Peak. The road continues along the river and through a beautiful valley. About two miles from the junction, you pass the Crazy Creek Campground and a trailhead. Four miles is the Fox Creek Campground and the road begins to climb up a bit. Two miles from the campground is the state line and you enter the Gallatin National Forest. Here you begin dropping down along Cache Creek and pass by a couple of campgrounds. Cooke City is five miles from the state line. Three miles further west, you go through Silver Gate and enter Yellowstone National Park.

OPTION: To Red Lodge.

Turn east and the road climbs up above the Clarks Fork River. After about one mile, you pass by the Lily Lake Road and cross Lake Creek below a small waterfall. As you continue to climb the mountain, you pass by the Muddy Creek Road and come to the Pilot-Index Overlook (seven miles from the junction). The road then goes by the Clay Butte Lookout Road and you pass Beartooth Falls. The road then swings around Beartooth Lake and goes past Beartooth Lake Campground. (Just plain pretty.)

After leaving the lake, the road travels through a high mountain park and follows along Little Bear Creek. Three miles further is the Island Lake Campground and the road travels between Little Bear Lake and Chain Lake. You then go by Long Lake and a trailhead to the Clarks Fork River. Here the road climbs above timberline to the summit at Beartooth Pass. (Terrific area.)

As the road drops down a bit, you can see Glacier Lake in a small pocket to the west and you have an inspirational view of Rock Creek far below. The road continues above timberline and you can see Garden Lake (below and to the south) and the Twin Lakes (below and to the north).
Twenty-six miles from the junction with US-212 is the Montana state line. Here you begin an unnerving drop to the valley below (12 miles). (On the way down, stop off at the Rock Creek Vista Point for an informative scenic overlook and to let the brakes cool down.) After reaching the bottom, you pass by a couple of campgrounds on your way to Red Lodge (about 10 miles further).

The Sunlight Basin area is scenic to say the least. Shown here is Beartooth Falls near the Montana border on US-212 heading northeast. This is Grizzly Bear Country so keep a clean campsite!